By: Christine Ficker
Kentucky is a region of almost 26 million acres of land, and of that land a little less than half is covered in woodlands owned by roughly 467,000 private landowners.[i] That is a vast amount of land to look after, and almost too much for anyone to monitor completely. Today, woodland property owners face the problem of unauthorized property entry and unapproved timber cutting on their land.[ii]
On October 1, members of the Interim Joint Committee on Natural Resources and the Environment gathered to discuss timber theft in Kentucky.[iii] Timber theft, or the intentional cutting and stealing of timber,[iv] is a prevalent occurrence in remote areas of the state, particularly in Eastern Kentucky,[v] and commonly plagues landowners who live away from their woodland plots.
Kentucky lawmakers have enacted criminal penalties for trespass and timber theft. First, it must be proven that an individual trespassed or knowingly crossed the boundary into another’s land.[vi] Second, in order to be criminally prosecuted, an individual must be proven to have trespassed onto another’s property, and then have cut and removed trees from the land.[vii] If one removes $300 or more of timber from another’s land, he or she can be prosecuted for felony theft and could be convicted of one to five years in prison.[viii] Landowners may also be awarded compensation for the loss of trees and damage caused to their property.[ix]
Additionally, victims of timber theft have a civil cause of action under timber trespass laws to recover damages beyond what is awarded during a criminal prosecution or in cases where criminal charges are not brought.[x]
Despite the sizeable number of laws designed to protect landowners from timber theft, it is still occurring within the state. Landowners are unable to safeguard their trees using protections such as bar codes or identification numbers to easily trace their goods after conversion to lumber.[xi] The lack of an evidence trail left by the logs makes it difficult for law enforcement to trace stolen timber, and even more difficult for prosecutors to build successful criminal cases.[xii]
Law enforcement’s inability to gather evidence also leaves landowners pursuing civil cases in a difficult position. Landowners must hire private surveying companies to evaluate the damage to their property, which can cost five dollars per surveyed foot.[xiii] Victims face the deterioration of stumps and land damage, such as bulldozer tracks, from the natural elements while gathering funds to hire surveyors, making it harder to win verdicts in court.[xiv]
The past nine legislative session attempts to strengthen timber theft laws have failed to gain traction.[xv] However, earlier this year, the legislature approved stricter penalties against loggers that have been designated as “bad actors” for not restoring harvested timber lands to an adequate level.[xvi]
At the Interim Committee Meeting, the Kentucky Resources Council (“KRC”) introduced written testimony highlighting the difficulties faced by timber theft victims and provided recommendations for action going forward.[xvii] The KRC recommended that the Committee form a work group to identify current problems surrounding timber trespass and theft while developing a consensus among interested parties concerning solutions to reduce theft.[xviii] The KRC also advocated for improved coordination between the agencies that have the power to oversee timber harvesting.
Timber theft may seem trivial, but it is a huge problem for those who become victims of this crime. Kentucky lawmakers have already enacted strict laws concerning timber theft. However, the real issue faced by victims is the inability to utilize the laws because they cannot effectively gather evidence to build criminal or civil cases against thieves.
Kentucky lawmakers should create a task force with the specific purpose of assisting victims in the effective gathering and preservation of evidence needed to pursue judicial remedies. If future victims are able to collect evidence they will be empowered to use existing legal remedies to pursue retribution for the criminal and civil wrongs committed against them.
[i] Timber Theft and Forest Fact Sheet, Timber Theft, http://www.timbertheft.org/timber-theft-and-forest-facts.html (last visited Oct. 30, 2015).
[ii] See Jeff Stringer, Timber Theft and Trespass – Quick Reference, U. of Ky, Coop. Extension Serv., FORFS 08-03, 1, available at http://www2.ca.uky.edu/forestryextension/publications/for109.pdf.
[iii] Timber Theft is Topic of Interim Committee Meeting, Kentucky Resources Council (Oct. 5, 2015), http://www.kyrc.org/webnewspro/144408489850879.shtml.
[iv] Jeff Stringer, Timber Theft and Trespass, U. of Ky., Coop. Extension Serv., FOR-109, available at http://www2.ca.uky.edu/forestryextension/Publications/FORFS%2008-03%20final.pdf.
[v] Ryland Barton, Options Limited for Kentuckians Who Fall Victim to Timber Theft, WFPL News, (Oct. 1, 2015) http://wfpl.org/options-limited-kentuckians-fall-victim-timber-theft/.
[vi] See Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 511.070 (West 2015); Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 511.080 (West 2015); Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 511.090 (West 2015); see also Stringer, supra note iv, at 2.
[vii] Stringer, supra note iv, at 2.
[ix] Ky. Rev. Stat. Ann. § 364.130 (West 2015); see also Stringer, supra note iv, at 2.
[x] Stringer, supra note iv, at 4.
[xvi] Timber Theft is Topic of Interim Committee Meeting, supra note iii.